Thursday, October 27, 2011



MFA holders and professional writers write about how you don't actually need an MFA to learn how to write.

I've been learning everything I can about writing over the last year. My English degree was all about reading and analyzing literature and writing academic essays. I have only recently felt the compulsion to write in my own time. I mentioned earlier this week that I am thinking about doing an MFA, but since I'm still paying for that first degree I probably won't do it this year. This book reinforced my sense that I can do things that are equivalent to an MFA without actually being enrolled in a program. The authors say to read carefully, write a lot, and join a critique group, all things I am doing already. They outline the benefits of an MFA (a writing community, feedback, access to publishing contacts and stellar faculty) but do not believe it is a necessary investment.

The book is divided into five sections (fiction, personal essays and memoir, magazine writing, poetry and script-writing). I skimmed the poetry and script sections, which offered interesting things to think about but were not as relevant to me. The fiction section focused on the short story form. There were writing exercises and helpful reminders about character building, plot and tension. The author outlined the different types of conflict and how to craft each one. I am writing creative non-fiction, but the components of a good fiction story are just as important to practice for my narrative. The memoir section analyzed effective personal essays and described how to express your honest voice in an engaging way. It addressed scene-building, dialogue, and how to tell the truth when crafting a memoir.

I think this book would be most useful for someone who has been intentionally practicing the craft of writing for a little while. I recently finished the second draft of a travel memoir about my first year in Hong Kong, and I scrutinized my work based on the advice in this book. It was encouraging to find that I am already doing many of the things they suggest intuitively, and for that I credit my voracious reading habit. It helped me figure out some of the things I need to do better (dialogue, for example) and I will go back and reread various sections of the book as I continue to revise. ON WRITING by Stephen King is still the best writing book out there for beginners, but this book is a good tool for those who want to take their work to the next level.


The New York Writers Workshop


$8.99  for the Kindle edition


What do you think about MFAs? Do you have one? Do you consider it a good investment? How do you learn to write?


  1. This sounds like a great book and one I'm going to check out! (I love On Writing, too.) I don't have an MFA, but I've worked with independent editors who have and feel like I've learned a ton from them. One gave me a reading list of memoirs as I was re-working an earlier draft of mine. My current editor also has an MFA and has given me some great tips (try to structure each chapter as if it were a short story; focus on a central theme and conflict or two; provide self-reflection early and often). I certainly don't as much as MFA grads, so in the future it's definitely something I'd consider.

    Good luck with your decision. It sounds like you've already progressed with your memoir. Have you joined It's a helpful community and there's even a memoir group. They have classes and discussion boards. That's where I found my current independent editor.

  2. Interesting point of view about the MFA, but I still wondering, why they need to show it? I mean, they could write down good stories about anything, there are to many issues in this society and they still worry about the MFA... I don't understand it.


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